Kenny Schachter Emerges From Surgery With Dirt on Damien Hirst, Ed Sheeran, and a Lot More

In part one of his 'Busted-Disc Diaries,' he recounts blowing out his back moving his art. He's recovering, and just as indefatigable as ever. Thank his art-loving doctors!

I really got myself into a bind this time! After life-changing spinal-cord surgery, I was said to resemble a tubed-up Paul Thek sculpture, ta-da! Photo by Kenny Schachter

Tears are running down my cheeks—from frustration, more than pain at this stage, though there’s been plenty of that, too—as I finally sit down to write. Three weeks ago, I suffered a catastrophic back injury and was rushed into emergency surgery, narrowly avoiding permanent paralysis. My disc had splintered into the sheath of my spinal cord, causing neurological damage that spread from my lower back to my bladder, including the total loss of feeling in my right leg.

I derive as much satisfaction from moving art around as I do making, writing, and teaching about it. Over the course of the week preceding my hospitalization, I was digesting a group of sculptures that had returned from my exhibition “Keep Hope Alive” (an unwittingly prescient title) at the Francisco Carolinum museum in Linz, Austria. (A monographic book, published by the institution, is being shipped as I type.)

A man in hospital garb enters an cylindrical MRI machine in a color photo

The MRI proved so awful that the attendant rushed me to the surgeon directly in her own Uber! That was pretty disheartening, despite the good faith act of charity. Photo by Kenny Schachter

On Sunday, March 31, carrying sculptural cubes/stools that weigh more than 57 pounds each up and down five flights of stairs, I felt a rip that seemed to radiate from my shoulder across my torso. I continued lifting the pieces—emblazoned with protruding letters that spell out “N-F-T-ism” (sardonically enough)—for a few more hours. So began an odyssey that will affect me for the remainder of my life. The following Monday, I felt spasms shoot from my hips through my legs like waves of cascading razorblades.

Later that day I visited Dr. Bernard M. Kruger, who was recommended by a friend, and whose office is littered with art from his patients, including a litany of familiar names. I was more intrigued with who the physician “represents” than the treatment he suggested: an MRI. Even now, every time I refer to him, it’s more in the parlance of a dealer than a doc! Nevertheless, I am beyond grateful that his medical prowess and thoroughness exceeded his cool art collection.

Getting disconnected for discharge… my needle holes had needle holes; when someone suggested acupuncture, I blanched. Photo by Kenny Schachter.


I foreswore being inserted into the claustrophobic X-ray tube, and returned to work, with the aid of a few futile shots that were administered in my butt by a house-calling GP. (His own son apparently refers to him as an upscale Uber driver—hey, it’s New York, you can get anything delivered in an hour.) However, the pain only grew worse. The following morning, I ran (metaphorically speaking) to the MRI, barely able to walk. The results were so bad that the technician ordered a car on her own account and personally accompanied me to the surgeon recommended by Doctor Art.

After a brief examination by Dr. Roger Härtl—who is nothing short of a magician, a brilliant virtuoso, and the director of spinal surgery at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center—it was flagrantly clear that I needed surgery, which was slated for two days later, Friday, April 5. Dr. Härtl, by the way, exhibited part of his photo collection at the Grolier Club in an exhibition entitled “Photographs at the Edge: Vittorio Sella and Wilfred Thesiger.” To be clear, I only feel safe in the hands of art folk.

A man is seen in a hospital room

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught my lovely, compassionate kid, Sage, capturing this compromising moment, which I just had to share. It cost me 500 Instagram followers. Photo by Kenny Schachter

Exiting the offices, waiting for a taxi, my legs gave way—seemingly in slow motion—and crumbled beneath me. I dropped to the sidewalk like a marionette with severed strings. Lifting my head from the pavement, an elderly woman immediately approached and offered her walker to brace me so that I could stand up. Tears are welling (again) at the thought of this gesture of munificence.

I was told to check into the hospital prior to the operation, due to my fall, since my spinal condition could deteriorate should I take another tumble. After losing my mother to cancer at an early age (she was 40, I was 13), I am loathe to go near medical establishments when and if I can help it. But fear got the best of me and I capitulated. After five hours in the emergency room waiting for a berth to open to spend the next week, it became increasingly difficult to walk unaided.

A cityscape is seen in darkness. Buildings glow.

It took me four days to be able to sit up and realize I had a view to die for. Maybe not the best way to describe it. I didn’t want to leave after a week, mainly because I was petrified to go home, left to my own devices. Photo by Kenny Schachter

By the time I was finally ushered into a room, I could no longer move my right leg—at all. I was petrified, put on a course of meds, and quickly passed out. The following morning, still a few days shy of my scheduled surgery, I awoke to a coterie of nurses peering down on me from above and was wheeled into the operating theatre for four hours of emergency surgery, barely avoiding permanent paralysis. Before I awoke from anesthesia, I received an artist’s get-well wishes by DM, which prominently included a bald-faced attempt to flog their art to me. Christ.

I had suffered severe Cauda Equina Syndrome, caused by a ruptured disc. Cedars-Sinai can explain more: “The cauda equina is the sack of nerve roots that leave the spinal cord between spaces in the bones to connect to other parts of the body. These nerves provide the ability to move and feel sensation in the legs and the bladder. Without quick treatment, problems can occur, including permanent paralysis, not being able to empty the bowel or bladder properly, loss of sexual sensation and other problems.”

A white car is seen from the side in a color photo

A 1998 Japanese domestic-market Honda Integra Type R DC2 homologation street racer with a suspension resembling my spine, sans an exploded disc. I bought it before I regained full feeling in my right leg, thinking it would motivate my recovery. Photo by Kenny Schachter

I endured a week without use of my right leg and two without control of my bladder. I was said to resemble a Paul Thek sculpture with tubes jutting out of me from all corners. (He is an artist whose work I’ve been curating for decades; another show is in the works.) Crying—from frustration, grief, anger, agony, and joy—has become the norm for me, on a daily basis, for more than three weeks. Nothing will be the same, though a full physical recuperation is anticipated, I insist. Suffice it to say, I’m again walking, peeing on my own and… I’ll leave it at that.

Rehabilitation will be protracted, deliberate, and grueling—admittedly not the easiest process for an, at best, impatient patient. I was told to employ the mnemonic BLT: no bending, lifting, or twisting for six weeks. As a result, I’d modify the proverb that necessity is the mother of invention, tweaking it to the mother of industriousness. I’ve begun using my toes for all sorts of tasks, from turning the heater on and off to picking up my phone.

A large water bottle is seen on a table in a color photo.

Even my water bottle came with a warning label. Photo by Kenny Schachter

Let us now return to our regularly scheduled programming—i.e., art world hot takes! A class-action lawsuit was recently filed against Hermès, alleging that it engages in the “unlawful practice of tying,” which entails requiring customers to buy ancillary junk they don’t want—shoes, scarves, and jewelry—in order to be granted the opportunity to buy overpriced crap they don’t need, namely pornographically priced Birkin or Kelly bags.

“Claiming the company violates antitrust laws and is engaged in unfair, anticompetitive business practices, the two plaintiffs leading the suit . . . [invite] other frustrated consumers to join their cause so they will have the right to purchase these highly-coveted and super-expensive handbags in the open market,” Forbes reports. (The luxury giant has said that it “strictly prohibits any sale of certain products as a condition to the purchase of others.”)

High fall risk and plenty of pain, that was me alright. Okay, so maybe sometimes I fudged my 1-10 pain score to score some more Oxy. Photo by Kenny Schachter.

Take note, galleries and speculectors. (For the record, I coined that word back in 2014; more on this next week in regards to Inigo Philbrick and Orlando Whitfield.) The message here? All the arrogant, annoying galleries—you know who you are—that insist on pushing unsellable stuff from their stables in order for people to notch a place on a waiting list to buy a second-rate example of an artist they actually covet: Beware. Let’s lawyer up! Class action anyone?

I count myself a big fan of the irreverent polymath that is the whirlwind known as Jamian Juliano-Villani, the artist, gallerist, impresario, and loose cannon who puts my outspokenness to shame. If the swashbuckling, drunken, machismo vitriol that oozed from the walls of the 1950s-era Cedar Tavern came back to life in the form of a tightly wound, anarchistic, whirling dervish, that would be Jamian. Her behavior wouldn’t be countenanced by just about anyone else in today’s stifling, politically correct art world, but she gets away with it because, well, she’s Jamian. Maybe one day I’ll screen the downright-frightening, no-holds-barred studio visit we had that was professionally filmed.

A man in a hospital gown stands behind a walker

With my hospital gown-cape, to protect other patients from the indecent rear view. Blogger Greg Allen called me the “Whack Emperor.” Photo by Kenny Schachter

I can report that Jamian’s seat-of-the-pants East Village exhibition space, O’Flaherty’s, is on the lookout for a new space (confirmed by the artist), after losing its lease for failure to pay rent. That’s not surprising, considering her adventurous, unconventional programming, which should at the least be supported by private contributions as a community service. Also, her debut solo outing at Gagosian gallery, which ended earlier this month, did not sell out, as some have been saying. A handful of paintings were still available as of last week, a well-placed source told me. The standout of the show, a self-portrait of Jamian giving Elvis Presley’s crotch a firm squeeze, went to Anita and Poju Zabludowicz.

In what feels like a few short decades, Damien Hirst has transformed before our eyes from the master of conceptual legerdemain to a buffoon bore of the post-bourgeoisie. Clad from head to toe in Chrome Hearts, the ostentatious, overpriced luxury brand founded in Hollywood in 1988 (coincidentally the very year Damien shot to the fore of Brit art), he has been reduced to a mere simulacrum/cliché of what we think of when we conjure an over-the-top financially successful artist in the 2020s.

A man stands, holding a walker, in a color photo

Celebrating my release after an action-packed week in hospital, the real (painful) healing began—nothing a smile couldn’t assuage. Sort of. Photo by Kenny Schachter

Take a quick peek at the Instagram of Hirst’s barely 30-year-old girlfriend, Sophie Cannell, or the pages of the British tabloids on a weekly basis (OK, I admittedly still read them after moving back to New York five years ago), and you’ll get an eyeful of Damien’s lavish homes, private planes, seven-star holidays, and diamond-encrusted watches, replete with a $3,500 stroller in which he pushes around Cannell’s chihuahua. His manager, Joe Hage, is the most powerful behind-the-scenes art Svengali figure next to Larry G, and is never far from the frame. (Hage is now working with Peter Doig, too.)

For some time, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran has been sharing one of Hirst’s myriad London studios to whip out oh-so-earnest Jackson Pollock pastiches that are banal beyond words. (Mine, anyway.) Pollock would have sucked his drips right back into the tube to avoid an indignity as brazen and downright off-putting as this.

A color photo shows a large living room filled with furniture

Studio-kitchen-living-dining-office-meeting-physio-med treatment rooms! Practically bathroom, too, other than for showering and partial toilet functions… don’t ask. Photo by Kenny Schachter

In an act that smacks of entitled celebritism (an overwhelming obsession with celebrities), Hirst has scheduled a solo showing of Sheeran’s saccharine drips at his vanity museum, the Newport Street Gallery, in London, in the near future. Don’t get me wrong. I do not begrudge anyone pursuing their artistic whims; in fact, I encourage it, but please don’t foist it on me or the art-going public.

In conclusion (till next week), there are 23 discs in our spines: six in the cervical region (neck), 12 in the thoracic region (middle back), and five in the lumbar region (lower back). Now that I am down to 22—after the painstaking removal of what was left of my shattered disc—I’m not only in the shrinking stage of life but shorter by a disc. Great. Too bad I can’t sue myself.

A smiling snake whose face resembles a human is seen in a color photograph

Always look on the bright side of life, even where there seemingly is none. Photo by Kenny Schachter

I must take leave now to return to physiotherapy, as much to regain the use of my leg as to unlearn a life of bad posture (one is more difficult to correct than the other). Throughout it all, I’ve been rather sanguine, but then again, what choice do I have? More than ever, I am determined to help others in any way I can. Yes, a kinder, more compassionate me has been reincarnated; but, rest assured, not too far beneath the surface I’m the same asshole I ever was.

A man in hospital garb enters an cylindrical MRI machine in a color photo

I took one memorable Zoom call while multiple viles of blood were removed! The other end of the call overlooked my cries of pain. Photo by Kenny Schachter

A digitally altered color photo shows a zipper atop a large scar

I installed an accessory zipper for easy entrance/exit for extra storage. Photo by Kenny Schachter

A painting of a nurse has text atop it that reads "KENNY'S NURSE"

Richard Prince said it’s all a free concert, so surely he wouldn’t mind. Besides, he’s had disc surgery too. Photo by Kenny Schachter

A man in casual clothes raises his fist in a color photo. He is in a hospital room, holding a walker.

And he’s off, but slowly! Released on his own recognizance—along with a week’s worth of insurance-covered 24/7 nurses. Photo by Kenny Schachter

Standing outside in a digitally altered image, a man holds a walker with many attachments

Introducing my new line of walkers: Kenny’s multi-media mobility machines for the man/woman on the mend! Photo by Kenny Schachter

A cartoon image shows a man modeling three canes of different heights

Size matters!! Trust me. Photo by Kenny Schachter

A man stands in an art-filled with a cane

Not a day has gone by in three weeks, literally, that I haven’t cried: from fear, pain, frustration, anger (am I missing anything?), and, on occasion, joy! Like here, where I made it up five flights to my office for the first time in three weeks using a cane! And sheer will. Photo by Kenny Schachter

A color photo shows a container filled with pills

Breakfast of champions! For a few weeks, I helped the pharmaceutical companies make even more pornographic sums of money. Photo by Kenny Schachter

A fake billboard in an image shows a man appearing to market legal services

Sounds kind of masturbatory, but if only I could sue myself—I would! How stupid to lift 33 sculptures weighing more than 57 pounds, each up and down multiples flights. I was asking for trouble. And trouble I got. Photo by Kenny Schachter

A red image with pink letters reads: KEEP HOPE ALIVE

My first monographic book, published by the Francisco Carolinum Museum in Linz, Austria is hot off the press, and couldn’t have been more presciently titled! Photo by Kenny Schachter

A digital image shows a cane that resembles a gun

This could come in handy at Frieze. Keep your distance—or else! Photo by Kenny Schachter

A man sits in an art-filled room in a color photograph

Surprising how much necessity breeds industriousness! Since I never quite learned how to paint or draw, maybe now is time to take it up with my toes. Photo by Kenny Schachter

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